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War crimes in Yemen?

After Gaza, the next task for Judge Goldstone could be Yemen where the government continues to fight a rebellion in the north

By Brian Whitaker

The Guardian, 18 September 2009


Now that the UN commission has published its findings on Gaza, there's another task waiting for Judge Goldstone and his team: an investigation into possible war crimes in Yemen. Off and on for the last five years, the Yemeni government has been fighting a rebellion in the north of the country. The latest flare-up began five weeks ago when the military launched an offensive codenamed Operation Scorched Earth.

It is difficult to know exactly what is going on there, partly because access is severely restricted (for aid workers as well as journalists). Day after day the government claims to have inflicted further "painful" strikes against the rebels – known as Houthis – and the rebels in turn appear to have killed and captured significant numbers of government troops, as well as some armoured vehicles.

One thing beyond doubt, though, is that this has created a major humanitarian crisis. Tens of thousands have had to flee their homes and, so far, aid agencies have been unable to provide food or shelter for many of them.

The Houthis are fierce fighters and by no means a pleasant bunch: there have been numerous reports of them killing people in cold blood.

The government says it is going to finish them off once and for all, and some of its statements sound remarkably similar to those heard from Israel about wiping out Hezbollah in 2006 and Hamas earlier this year. As in Lebanon and Gaza, it is probably not going to succeed. It may kill lots of people and quieten the rebellion, but disaffection in the rebel areas will not go away any time soon: it is a result of decades of exclusion and marginalisation.

Since Operation Scorched Earth began, the Yemeni military has been relying heavily on air strikes. This raises the question of how – if at all – they distinguish between rebel fighters and civilians, especially in a lawless part of the country where citizens habitually carry guns for their own protection.

In the first days of the offensive there were reports of 15 civilians killed when a fighter jet attacked a marketplace.

On Wednesday this week, more than 80 people – mostly women and children – were reportedly killed when aircraft repeatedly struck an encampment of people who had fled the fighting. For once, there appears to be plenty of evidence from witnesses who can testify to the attack.

According to Human Rights Watch, one witness said that "Yemeni military planes conducted four raids this morning [Wednesday] and, without warning, bombed a group of displaced persons sheltering in an open area near a school. There were no armed clashes or rebels in the area at the time, the witness said, but the area was close to a road sometimes used by Houthi rebels."

Unicef yesterday expressed "deep concern" at the civilian deaths and its regional director said: "This is unacceptable. Children should not be caught in conflict. Their right to health, protection and safety must be protected at all times."

Human Rights Watch called on the Yemeni government "to promptly and impartially investigate responsibility for any attacks on civilians, and urged all parties to the armed conflict in the region to respect the prohibition under international law against targeting civilians".

The Yemeni government says it will investigate, but the specially formed "fact-finding commission" is not independent – it is under the control of the army – and there are already signs as to which way the investigation is heading.

The defence ministry is blaming the rebels for "preventing citizens from leaving to the safe areas" and says, "The terrorists are using innocent citizens as human shields."

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